The first case was at Howard, and unrequited. Three out of his four years there he had a class with Bea. She had the most cheerful face and the most musical laugh he’d ever seen any girl have. She was also kind to everyone, bold in the face of anything she thought wrong, and, by the time Trip realized how he felt, absolutely devoted to the man she married right after graduation. Her devotion to him honestly made Trip love her more; it was part of who she was to be that way towards her man, so he had to. It was just as well anyway. He didn’t think he could’ve made anything with her work when he was intending to go into S.H.I.E.L.D. as soon as they’d have him.
Shirley Hoto was different. He’d vaguely known her for most of his time at the Academy, but he didn’t think he’d ever really spoken to her before the beginning of his last year, when, after some testing, their combat instructor paired them up as sparring partners, as roughly equal to each other in ability. He’d had female sparring partners before, and knew his first thought when being presented with his partner shouldn’t be how gorgeous she was. But he couldn’t help it. She had pale skin and whispy black hair, and though almost as tall as him had an appearance of fragility that made one think of a butterfly, though he was smart enough to figure it had to be deceptive. And it was, which he actually found even more attractive.
And they really liked each other from the start. She was one of the Academy’s smartest students, and probably its most cunning. But she had a good sense of humor, and her smile really grew on him. And she told him, early on, that no one could make her smile like he could. After their first session together they went out for a drink, and from there things just grew. Their first kiss was two months later, and though it actually took a little longer for either of them to say, “I love you,” by graduation, they both had. Though they never talked about what they would do after that. Even by then, he knew her bad habit of avoiding hard conversations.
The first year after that was good, though. They didn’t see that much of each other, but they could make it work at first. And she had an uncanny ability to show up wherever he was. During the assignment in Northwestern China, two days after he landed in the hospital, he woke up to find Shirley by his bedside, and she managed to stay there until he was released. He returned the favor after some business in Hong Kong went bad, and she was in a S.H.I.E.L.D. medical facility for a month; he managed to persuade Garrett to get them stationed near there between missions. During the long weeks and occasionally months when they couldn’t see each other, they had long Skype chats whenever they both could. When they’d finished their first year out in the field, they celebrated by taking four days’ leave, and spent some quiet quality time together up in Maine. Their last day ended with them sitting on a rocky shore and watching the sunset in each other’s arms, which for the rest of his life would be one of Trip’s favorite memories.
He was never sure just what went wrong. Maybe it was the distance in the end, and the fact that he wasn’t there when Shirley started to change. Something turned her sadder, more down; she would never tell him what. Maybe it was just dealing with the ugliness of the world in the way they did. And there came a long stretch of time where they weren’t able to meet in person, and when he asked what was wrong over Skype, she never seemed up to telling him. Even when they got back into each other’s company she wouldn’t. That avoidance of hard conversations she always did, of course, but it had never been to this extent before. Later he would think he could’ve been more patient with her, and that he should’ve taken it less personally.
And there were definitely some words he said to her, three days before their third anniversary, that he knew as soon as he switched the Skype off he absolutely should never have said.
It still didn’t end then. He called up the next day and apologized, and she called back, and it lingered on, the Skype talks and the meetings, and when she took a position on the Helicarrier a year later, he desperately wondered if maybe only of them being steadily in the same place could be the opportunity they needed to fix things. There were even days, and sometimes weeks, where things momentarily got better, and that kept him going. But she never really forgave him for what he’d said, and though intellectually he couldn’t blame her, emotionally he couldn’t forgive her for not forgiving him.
She’d been on the Helicarrier half a year when he and Garrett ended up operating out of it for four months, while Garrett went looking for something above Trip’s clearance in their databanks and storage units. By the time the first month was over he knew it was the end. Shirley had changed so much he barely even knew who she was anymore, and while he still loved her, they were fighting almost every day, and there were nights he dreaded her coming back to their quarters.
At two months he asked her if she still loved him. Her eyes were too bright when she said yes, and even though he believed her, he still knew it wasn’t going to be enough.
Still they tried, if only because she didn’t want to have the hard conversation where they broke up, and he didn’t want to either. But finally, about a week before he and Garrett were to depart, while she was on duty, Trip took his things and moved out of her quarters.
Garrett found him in his own, doing his normal evening exercises. He took in the scene, and said, as gently as Trip had ever heard him speak, “Most relationships S.H.I.E.L.D. agents try for don’t work out, especially for special operatives like us. Our lives just aren’t conducive towards it.”
“Yeah, I knew that from the start,” Trip said. “But I had to try. I had to.” He regretted all the mistakes, the words and deeds he’d done wrong. He especially regretted that he’d never really known if it would’ve worked out had he done it better. But he didn’t regret the relationship itself.
“You had guts for trying,” said Garrett. “I’ll give you that.”
Shirley didn’t seek him out, didn’t message him, didn’t do anything to get him to try to reconsider. Sensible enough, he supposed, since she had to know even if she somehow did get him back, ultimately things still wouldn’t be saved. But he suspected also it was another conversation she didn’t want to have.
He just hoped she didn’t keep things so bottled up inside she went crazy and burst. He hadn’t stopped caring for her enough to not worry about that constantly.